The Conservatives’ Immigration Bill passed its second reading in parliament on 18 May. It will proceed to committee scrutiny, expected to run until 25 June.
The Bill would end free movement with the EU and write a blank cheque for the Home Secretary, who will be able to create a new immigration regime with limited oversight. Plans published so far indicate an extension to EU migrants of the existing regime’s barriers and hostile treatment of “unskilled” (i.e. low-paid) workers. “Guest worker” schemes will facilitate hyper-exploitation and abuse by employers.
Labour rightly whipped its MPs to oppose the bill in its entirety, but fifteen abstained. Most were explained as problems with the new remote voting system, but Diane Abbott reported that five had explicitly refused to oppose the bill — on the shameful grounds that to do so would supposedly “put further holes in the red wall”.
Yvette Cooper spoke openly about her abstention, saying that though the bill is “flawed” and she wouldn’t approve it on the final vote if amendments were unsuccessful, she does “recognise that legislation on immigration is now needed”. This continues her long record of triangulating to the right on immigration.
While Cooper attracted deserved condemnation, Abbott and some others on the Labour left carefully avoided the elephant in the room. When the Tories introduced a near-identical bill last spring, Corbyn’s front bench (including both Abbott and Keir Starmer) initially whipped for abstention on the exact same basis.
Only a last-minute outcry from Labour activists on social media forced them, mid-debate, to flip and vote against. Memories of that backlash (and the subsequent success of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement’s policy at Labour conference) likely account for the new leadership’s firmer stance.
A few days later, Starmer announced that Labour would propose an amendment exempting NHS and care workers from the immigration health surcharge. Johnson initially defended the fee, but by the very next day, public pressure forced him to relent. We await details of how he will implement the promised exemption.
This is an advance, but the surcharge must be scrapped for all migrants — free healthcare is a right, not a privilege reserved for a “deserving” few. Asked about this before Johnson’s capitulation, Starmer’s spokesperson explained that he agreed, “but this amendment is specifically targeted at making a bad bill better”.
With Johnson on the back foot, activists must push Starmer to show more vigour — both against the surcharge and for the wider pro-migrant policy that Labour conference passed. And if the front bench won’t press home the advantage, the left should.
Before the vote on the bill, Nadia Whittome MP, a long-time supporter of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, called for a labour movement campaign “both inside and outside Parliament” for our pro-migrant policies.
Given the Tories’ majority, bolstered further by anti-migrant Labour rebels, she is right that we cannot leave it to the MPs. Nor should we allow MPs to stand aloof from campaigning action beyond Westminster.